March 24, 2006
The Democratization of Expertise
Posted by Christine Hurt

ProfB has an interesting post on the wisdom of crowds versus the wisdom of experts.  One of the intriguing aspects of the Internet has been the democratization of authority.  Thirty years ago, if you were writing a paper for school, you found facts and support for your paper in written materials.  They seemed authoritative because well, it was printed professionally.  Surely hacks couldn't get things published.  Now, research is done online, and any hack can publish something online (look at us!).  We also used to go to the encyclopedia, which carried an authoritative weight second to none.

Today, the WSJ reports that Encyclopedia Britannica is defending itself from a short piece in Nature that compares Wikipedia quite favorably to the venerable encyclopedia.  EB is disputing not only the "errors" that the Nature authors claimed were found in EB (some did seem to be judgment calls) but also the very idea that the lay people that contribute to Wikipedia could compete with its expert researchers.  The Wikipedia people are being very classy about the whole thing and concede that EB has the advantage over certain areas:

He says he was glad Nature chose to compare science-related themes "because on history and the social sciences, we're much weaker." In other areas -- including computer science and the history of "Star Trek," he says, Wikipedia is "way better."

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